2.2.1. Astronomical tables

One of the earliest estimates of the date of the Vedas was at once among the most scientific. In 1790, the Scottish mathematician John Playfair demonstrated that the starting-date of the astronomical observations recorded in the tables still in use among Hindu astrologers (of which three copies had reached Europe between 1687 and 1787) had to be 4300 BC.3 His proposal was dismissed as absurd by some, but it was not refuted by any scientist.

Playfair’s judicious use of astronomy was countered by John Bentley with a Scriptural argument which we now must consider invalid. In 1825, Bentley objected: “
By his [= Playfair’s] attempt to uphold the antiquity of Hindu books against absolute facts, he thereby supports all those horrid abuses and impositions found in them, under the pretended sanction of antiquity. Nay, his aim goes still deeper, for by the same means he endeavors to overturn the Mosaic account, and sap the very foundation of our religion: for if we are to believe in the antiquity of Hindu books, as he would wish us, then the Mosaic account is all a fable, or a fiction.”4

Bentley did not object to astronomy per se, in so far as it could be helpful in showing up the falsehood of Brahminical scriptures. However, it did precisely the reverse. Falsehood in this context could have meant that the Brahmins falsely claimed high antiquity for their texts by presenting as ancient astronomical observations recorded in Scripture what were in fact back-calculations from a much later age. But Playfair showed that this was impossible.

Back-calculation of planetary positions is a highly complex affair requiring knowledge of a number of physical laws, universal constants and actual measurements of densities, diameters and distances. Though Brahminical astronomy was remarkably sophisticated for its time, it could only back-calculate planetary position of the presumed Vedic age with an inaccuracy margin of at least several degrees of arc. With our modern knowledge, it is easy to determine what the actual positions were, and what the results of back-calculations with the Brahminical formulae would have been, e.g

“Aldebaran was therefore 40’ before the point of the vernal equinox, according to the Indian astronomy, in the year 3102 before Christ. (…) [Modern astronomy] gives the longitude of that star 13’ from the vernal equinox, at the time of the Calyougham, agreeing, within 53’, with the determination of the Indian astronomy. This agreement is the more remarkable, that the Brahmins, by their own rules for computing the motion of the fixed stars, could not have assigned this place to Aldebaran for the beginning of Calyougham, had they calculated it from a modern observation. For as they make the motion of the fixed stars too great by more than 3” annually, if they had calculated backward from 1491, they would have placed the fixed stars less advanced by 40 or 50, at their ancient epoch, than they have actually done.”5

(ed.note: there is a point to be made here. If the Brahmanas of yore were so sophisticated as to be able to back calculate planetary positions over several thusand years, surely they muxt have been sophisticated enough to observe the planetary positions and we are paying them a huge compliment when we acknowledge that they had such abilities )

So, it turns out that the data given by the Brahmins corresponded not with the results deduced from their formulae, but with the actual positions, and this, according to Playfair, for nine different astronomical parameters. This is a bit much to explain away as coincidence or sheer luck.


3Playfair’s argumentation, “Remarks on the astronomy of the Brahmins”, Edinburg 1790, is reproduced in Dharampal: Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century, Academy of Gandhian Studies, Hyderabad 1983 (Impex India, Delhi 1971), p.69-124.

4John Bentley: Hindu Astronomy, republished by Shri Publ., Delhi 1990, p.xxvii; also discussed by Richard L. Thompson: “World Views: Vedic vs. Western”, The India Times, 31-3-1993. On p.111, we find that Bentley has "proven" that Krishna was born on 7 August in AD 600 (the most conservative estimate elsewhere is the 9th century BC), and on p.158ff., that Varaha Mihira (AD 510-587) was a contemporary of the Moghul emperor Akbar (r.1556-1605).

5J. Playfair in Dharampal: Indian Science and Technology, p.87.

6Quoted in S. Sathe: In Search for the Year of the Bharata War, Navabharati, Hyderabad 1982, p.32.

7N.S. Rajaram: The Politics of History, p.47.

8J. Playfair in Dharampal: Indian Science and Technology, p-118.

9J. Playfair in Dharampal: Indian Science and Technology, p.88-89.

10R.L. Thompson: Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, Los Angeles 1989, p. 19-24. Unfortunately, he gives no examples of the early use of Kali-Yuga, contenting himself with references to Indian publications offering such examples, unlikely to convince Western scholars, viz. S.D. Kulkarni: Adi Sankara, Bombay 1987, and G.C. Agrawala: Age of Bharata War, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1979. Kulkarni’s book (p.281ff) offers Kali-Yuga dates such as 509 BC, but from marginal Sanskrit sources which most Western scholars would consider unreliable.

11On that day, Hindu astrologers gathered for prayer-sessions on hilltops to avert the impending catastrophe; they were moderately successful.